“I’m gonna tell you something, Miss Randle,” he said as he was headed out the door. “Don’t ever change.”  He even did a little pistol-point at me with his finger.

“Ok,” I said.  “I’ll try not to.” Mostly I was being dismissive and trying to get him to scurry on out the door.  Planning time, baby.

“NO.  Don’t try.  Just don’t change. Don’t do it.” He had his serious face on now. Brows were furrowed.

“Well, what if I want a haircut?”

Sigh. Miss Randle is so slow sometimes. “You can do that. You can, like, change your clothes and stuff.  You can even shave your head bald if you want to, and if you do that I’ll shave my head, too, but don’t you ever change your personality, ok?  Just don’t.  It’s great.”

If you had told me the first week of school that I’d be on the receiving end of this level of pure sweetness by the end of October, I’d have checked the temperature of your forehead for signs of some kind of brain-boiling fever.   September had me in a full-on ugly cry at my desk after the second full week.  I even left a meeting in tears, accidentally slamming a door behind me, because I couldn’t handle people saying the phrase “3rd grade.”  I’d made a scene and I never make a scene, always preferring to suck it up in the moment and let it out somewhere other than in front of my coworkers and boss.  September was just that rough.  It was pray all day, drink wine every night, start every day knowing you won’t succeed kind of rough, but it’s over now.

October is over now, too.  It has had its own challenges, but I no longer feel like I’m fighting a losing battle.  In fact, I feel like a lot of the time we’re all winning. The conversation above is evidence of that.

If he could, the student I was chatting with would tell you his September was also very rocky.  There were lots of angry, screaming breakdowns, lots of time in the office, some violence, some storming out of the building, some calling of security guards.

So, how did we get here? How did we get to this place where he’s not just settled and controlled, but loving and funny? How did I stop having tearful meltdowns in inappropriate settings?

I’m convinced it’s investment.

When I walked out of that meeting and the door slammed behind me, I went to the quietest place I could find and, with all the lights off, literally backed myself into a corner.  I took several deep breaths and tried to stop the tears from flowing.  A minute or so later I looked up to see someone in the door.  A coworker, a friend, had followed me into the dark place.  She sat down with me and asked what I needed.  Throughout the day other folks showed up with lots of, “Hey, I’ve been there, too.”  The end of that story is that our team got together and solved a problem that was making it impossible for me to invest in my kids.  We all invested in the solution, but they also invested in me as a person.  Now I know that I have a group of people I can trust to come through for me, even when I’m a hot mess.

I’m not used to rushing from overwhelming situations and crawling into corners.  I’m not used to people coaxing me back to sanity.  But for so many of my kids, it’s their normal.  Just a few days before he said the sweetest thing ever, I’d found my little friend hiding under my desk.  Thinking he was just playing and hiding from me and knowing he doesn’t respond well to outright scolding, I made a game out of finding him with the other student in the room at the time.  When we found him, though, he was curled up, rocking, and visibly upset.  Redirecting the other student to work on some reading, I sat down next to my friend under the desk.

“Hey, dude.  I can see that you’re really upset about something.  What would you like me to do? I can sit here and you can talk to me about it or I can leave you alone.  What would work best for you right now?” I figured something had happened in his classroom or he’d had some kind of run-in with another student.

“Don’t you ever do that to me again!” he yelled at me.

“Um…do what, friend?” Now I was confused.

“I had no idea where you were! I was worried sick!  You could have been dead or something!”  Oh…what? This friend comes in about three minutes early for his time every day.  It’s never a big deal.  This particular day, however, I’d been in the office.  Knowing he’s always a little early, I took the ten second walk from the office to my classroom and was two minutes early.  That’s when I noticed he was hiding and figured he was playing around.  He had maybe spent 60 seconds on his own, but it was clearly enough time to send him into a panic.

My heart broke for him.  What had life done to him to make a 60 second absence enough to stir such strong feelings of abandonment? As I’ve gotten to know him, it’s become very clear that so many of his reactions and behaviors are entirely fear-based and that in response my actions have to be totally trust-building.  So, okay, friend, let’s sit under the desk in the dark and figure this out.

The day he made me promise not to ever, ever change, I’d just spent nearly an hour trying to corral him into something that at least resembled productivity.  He’d had this idea to scrap the classroom management system and use one involving earning play money for completed work and paying rent for things like chairs and pencils.  Switching systems is kind of a pain in the booty, but I saw it as a way to have valuable conversations about natural consequences and the weight of our responsibilities.  Plus, it’s always more powerful when kids have a hand in creating their own reinforcement systems.

So there we were, cutting out approximately one bajillion little paper bills, when he popped up and said, “Thank you so much. You listened. You really listened to me.  I had an idea and you said we could do it!  Here we are and we’re actually doing my idea!  And we’ve been working on it for days.  And you let me!”

“Well, buddy, it was a good idea. Honestly, if I didn’t think it was a good idea, we would not be doing this right now.”   He asked me once to always be honest with him.  If he came up to me with a song he made up and I thought it was dumb, he asked me to please just tell him.  Don’t sugar-coat it because that would never help him come up with better songs.  And besides, he could tell.  I asked him if this same philosophy applied to correcting his reading mistakes because he regularly yelled at me about that.  I got no response.

“I’m just so excited that someone actually listened to me this time.”  I am regularly thankful that heartbreak doesn’t make an audible sound.  If these kids could hear all the times they absolutely shatter me, I’d be in trouble.

And now here we are.  He gets top marks on his behavior chart nearly every day.  I cry every day, but now it’s because I’m laughing so hard.  At him.  For shaking his hips like Elvis, who just happens to be his favorite.

He’s not my only kid requiring such significant investment and I’m not the only one investing.  I’m not the only one sitting on the floor and creating safe spaces for kids.  Beyond a doubt, better than any IEP goal I could write, social skills lesson I could plan, or behavioral data tracking sheet I could design, that investment in their actual emotional selves is what I see spur the most change in the majority of my most difficult behavioral students.  We sit, we talk, I listen.  And as I listen, as we listen as the grown-ups in their lives, their little hearts change.  To stop the fighting, we have to stop the fear.  To stop the fear, they have to believe they are safe.  To believe they are safe, they have to be able to trust the environment and the people around them.

Even though he specifically asked me not to, I can’t help but change just a little bit when I’m around him (and all his little cohorts).  When you see the impact a bit of trust can have in just a little, bitty person, you can’t help but want to become more trustworthy every day.  I have people I can lean on who have proven through their investment in me that I am supported and not alone.  My fervent prayer is that I can spread a bit of that same thing to all the small humans who have been entrusted to me.  I don’t know what happens out in the big world, but when they step into my small one, please let it be safe. Let it build trust.  Let it be a place where we can all change, even just a little bit, into more of our best selves.

I Made a Mistake

Okay, so really I made two. 

Okay, so really I’ve made lots, but I’m trying not to dwell on them.  I’m only going to dwell on these two and for only as long as it takes me to get through this post.  Then I’m done, moving on, getting over it.

Mistake #1– Leaving two boys unsupervised long enough to let this happen:

I don’t know how well you can see it, but there’s a ridiculous amount of Scotch tape stuck to the legs of this chair.

 One of my wingnuts taped another of my wingnuts to the chair using my last roll of Scotch tape. 

I’d been talking to my student teacher about a lesson plan she’d taught the day before.  I’d meant for it to be a quick five-minute conversation, but it turned into 15.  Towards the end, we heard what sounded like muffled shouts of glee.  Like, seriously, you’re shouting for glee, but someone’s got a hand over your mouth or is covering your face with a pillow.  Why either of those would induce glee is not something I can imagine right now.

Wingnut 1 and Wingnut 2 had been playing on the other side of a shelf of cubbies for most of our conversation.  When I heard the strange “I’m trapped under a pillow but I’m really excited about it” sounds, I looked around for them and realized they were in the one spot in the room where they couldn’t be seen. 

“Hey, dudes! Get out here, please!” I called.  There were some light unsticking sounds and then the sounds of little feet scurrying. When they finally presented themselves, one looked happy, but guilty.  The other looked happy, but covered in Scotch tape from forehead to eyebrow and all down his cheeks.  This would explain what muffled the giggles.

Wingnut 2 said that Wingnut 1 had asked him to do it.  “Is Wingnut 1 the boss of you?” I asked.  Actually I think I said something like “king of your life” or “director of your days.” I’m not super fond of the phrase “boss of you.”  It just doesn’t sound right. 

So, moving on from my personal preferences regarding the English language, I ended up sitting them down for a long chat.  Wingnut 1 has had many, many chats with me.  It’s to the point now that he literally almost cries if I say, “Hey, friend, we need to have a little chat.”  Even if it’s said in a cheerful tone.  I’m taking a page from my maternal grandfather’s book.  From what I hear, death by lecture was his consequence of choice when raising my mom and her siblings.  That and boxing out their differences on the front lawn, but that’s not really an option in the public school setting.  Something I realize I’ve said many, many times since I began teaching is, “I see that you’d really like to not be here right now and that you’d rather not have this conversation. I’d really love to never have to talk to you about this again. For your entire recess and my entire planning time. The way to make that happen is to never do that again.  Do it again, and we get to repeat this entire process, which is no fun for anyone.”  Never do it again or just get smart enough to never get caught again, either way we all get our recess back.

What I was hoping they’d never do again this time was use all my classroom materials to tape their peers to the chairs hostage-style.  I still can’t find that roll of tape.

When I began the conversation, I said, “Okay, friends.  Two mistakes were made here today.  One by me and one by you.  I let my conversation go longer than I’d meant to and I let your free time go too long.  I didn’t give you any directions.”  Then we talked about their mistake and I had them process through what an appropriate choice would have been by drawing four good free time choices (not involving any adhesives).

It worked out.  Not much harm done, except for maybe a couple of totally unnecessary eyebrows that I’m sure no one will miss.

Are we ready to move on?

Mistake #2 — I bought a Costco-sized chunk of gorgonzola cheese from, um, Costco.

Who on earth, besides a caterer or the Gorgonzola Cheese Society of America (or maybe the Americas, including Canada and South America) needs that much gorgonzola in her life?  What was I thinking?

Probably I was thinking it was a different cheese, like cambezola, that I’d tried at a gathering on crackers and had really, really liked.  Probably I’d gotten confused because when someone said cambezola I thought gorgonzola because I’d had that with chicken at a wedding once a few years ago and had enjoyed it.  I tried the cambezola because I’d thought about how trying gorgonzola had worked out ok that one time in that tiny amount diluted by all that protein and sauce. And then I went to Costco a month after that, saw the gorgonzola and thought it was what had been spread on my crackers and bought a chunk the size of my face.

I also bought pears because somewhere I’d heard that pear and gorgonzola were something people put on salads and that if you could do that, why couldn’t I just cut some chunks of cheese and eat them with my pears? That sounds like a snack a sophisticated European woman would sit down for, right?  I tried it.  It was ok. Gorgonzola is a really strong-tasting cheese, though, and I had a hard time getting through the one slice I’d cut for myself. 

Then I woke up at about 1 AM with some serious tummy issues.  I was doubled-over, praying to throw up.  Is that TMI? Whatever.  I need your sympathies, people. And besides, I didn’t actually throw up.  I wish I had, but it didn’t work out that way. Sleep didn’t happen for me that night and I had to call in for a sub for that day, the first day back from winter break.  I blame the gorgonzola. 

So now I have this giant chunk of cheese sitting in my fridge and a ton of uncertainty surrounding exactly what to do with it.

I’ve tried these two things: a pizza and a pasta.

Here’s the pizza:

It is made up of a whole wheat Boboli pizza crust (better crusts can be home-made, for sure, but I rarely have the patience to let things rise), caramelized onions, pancetta, gorgonzola, and a bit of thyme sprinkled over the top. 

In the spirit of tooting my own horn, that thing was delicious.  Less gorgonzola was used on this whole pizza than what I ate that night with the pear (which honestly was maybe a little larger than a reasonable slice of cheddar). 

Here’s the pasta:

My plan was to combine baby portobello mushrooms and the rest of the pancetta with a recipe I found on The Pioneer Woman’s site: Pasta ai Quattro Formaggi.

It looks very easy and manageable, and probably would have been if I hadn’t decided to add the mushrooms and pancetta without actually being sure of my timing.  My pasta is kind of mushy because I forgot to set the timer and then I scalded the milk on accident and had to dump it out and reheat some more. All this meant that it didn’t come together exactly as hers seems to have. 

I used these four cheeses: parmesan (like she does), fontina (like she does), goat cheese (like she does), and gorgonzola (because I’m trapped under a heavy mountain of moldy cheese and am determined to cook my way out).  It’s yummy and cheesy.  I’ll try it again sometime.  Probably sometime soon because now on top of all my gorgonzola, I also have parmesan, fontina, and goat cheese.  That’s so much dairy for one girl to incorporate into her life. Besides, I’m already completely committed to Greek yogurt.

On the upside, though, goat cheese is creamy heaven, in case you were wondering.

And, because I’m sure you’re curious, I’ve used probably 15% of the huge-mondo-sized brick of moldy cheese I bought.  What on this earth am I going to do with the rest of it?

If you were so inclined, I’m sure you could search back through this whole mess and find several more mistakes I’ve made recently.  There’s probably a long list in there.  If you choose to spend your time doing that, I guess that’s up to you.  Please don’t share it with me, though.  The weight of the gorgonzola is already crushing my spirit.

I have learned a couple of things, though, besides that goat cheese and my taste buds were destined to love eachother from the beginning of time.

Thing 1: Never leave a wingnut unattended.  It’s a sticky mess.

Thing 2: Never buy a piece of cheese that, should it happen to fall from a high place, could pin your cat to the floor.

This is for your own good, people.  Don’t make my mistakes.